As we write this, yesterday was the 2018 State of the Union address (SOTU), but today we heard and read something that was a lot more personal. We are calling it the State of the System audit (SOTS), and it was quantitative and qualitative look at the state of the foster care system in Oregon… where we are foster parents. This audit of the Oregon Foster Care System and Oregon DHS, is a very detailed look and exposure of the issues affecting youth in foster care, foster parents, and caseworkers across Oregon. It is damning. For a summary press release from the Secretary of State, click here. It has also been heavily covered by local new organizations.
It is damning. For a summary press release from the Secretary of State, click here.
If you are a subscriber or regular reader of the blog, first, THANK YOU! Second, you have probably noticed that we haven’t posted much lately or frequently. One reason is that life is crazy busy, and we have found it difficult to find time to write our longer form posts about our journey as foster parents, that we hope provide insight, growth, successes, failures, heart breaks, and exhaustion we experience on a daily basis. The other reason is; every time we sit down to write a post, we feel like it quickly turns into a negative post complaining about the system, lack of support available to foster parents, the disservice being done to the children is the system, and overall frustration we have regarding the State of the System that we are experiencing. However, reading the State of the System audit provided validation for everything we have been feeling.
When we started this blog, it was about 6-months into our foster parenting journey, we wanted to provide a secular, realistic glimpse into the journey of being a foster parent. We didn’t want to sugar-coat our experience, we wanted to provide detailed and insightful views of the ups and downs, good and bad, heartwarming and heartbreaking details of the foster parent journey, and hopefully also provide commentary and suggestions about how to improve the system for foster parents and youth in foster care. We felt like this insight was missing or hard to come by when we began our journey. The best certification class we went to during our Certification Process was the one that for 1 out of the 3 hours, had a question and answer session with the elusive and rare “current foster parent”. We want to make that information more readily available on the internet. Our goal is to expose the reality of being a foster parent, not encourage or discourage people from becoming foster parents.
As mentioned above, part of the reason we have not posted much lately, is because every time we start to write something providing insight into our journey, it felt like it quickly turned negative, and our intent was not to write a negative blog complaining about the system and the difficulties of being a foster parent. However, today, January 31, 2018, the Oregon Secretary of State, Dennis Richardson, released the findings of the audit (SOTS), and held a press conference to discuss the findings. We don’t know much about Oregon Secretary of State, Dennis Richardson, his political views, or personal life, however we did learn during the release of the audit that he has been a foster parent, and has adopted a daughter from the system, so he has fist hand experience in working with DHS, and supporting children in foster care. The audit seems to confirm many of the issues we have experienced, and provides detail on how the system is failing youth in foster care, foster parents, and caseworkers.
Some of the main takeaways from the report, as stated in the press release are:
“Agency culture is dysfunctional and contributes to high staff and executive turnover.
There is a lack of accountability and transparency in the Child Welfare program.
Management does not plan adequately for costly initiatives and needs to better use data to make informed decisions and promote lasting program improvements. Several large initiatives have floundered in recent years, setting the agency back in its ability to effectively manage child welfare mandates and foster care services.
OR-Kids, an electronic case management data system, is outdated, time-consuming, and difficult for caseworkers to navigate. It still has over 1,000 outstanding fixes waiting to be addressed, some of which date back several years. The development of the OR-Kids system cost the agency $74 million – 100% more than originally projected—and appears to be fatally flawed.
Available foster homes have declined by 15% since 2011, and the number of experienced foster homes that serve the general population of foster children has declined by 55%. Foster parents struggle with limited guidance and support and are leaving the system faster than they can be recruited. Oregon’s foster children have diverse needs and backgrounds, and DHS needs a statewide recruitment and retention program that draws and retains diverse foster parents.
The agency lacks crucial data on foster home capacity which is needed to support recruitment efforts.
Child Welfare field offices are severely and chronically understaffed and administrative burdens continue to grow. Statewide, Child Welfare field staffing is short approximately 770 staff—the current number of caseworkers is 35% below the level needed to manage current caseloads.
Overwhelming caseloads are leading to rampant overtime use, high caseworker turnover, and staff frequently using medical leave for stress.
Caseloads are not reliably tracked centrally or at the district level, and the central office does not monitor the impact of turnover and leave time on caseload burdens and staffing allocations.
Oregon’s foster parents face a lack of ongoing support and training, burdensome costs, and a lack of respite care options. With the number of foster homes declining, DHS is asking the remaining foster parents to do more, and they are burning out. At the same time, a slow certification process discourages potential foster parents who could help relieve the strains on the system.
As foster parents, it was insightful to see statistics relating to the caseloads of caseworkers. As certified experienced foster homes have declined by 55%, we know first hand that homes are being overfilled, families are being asked to take on more then they can handle. The most frustrating aspect of being an overwhelmed foster parent, is reaching out for support from DHS and not having it provided. This audit demonstrates that for as overwhelmed as foster parents are, caseworkers are just as overwhelmed. This creates a relationship between caseworkers and foster families that is not productive, and can at times be combative, even though we are experiencing the same struggles and are reaching towards the same goals.
Another point that jumped out to us when reviewing the audit and press release was the statement regarding the lack of accountability and transparency in the Child Welfare program. Often times, as foster parents, we feel that the lack of support and guidance we receive, is purposeful. The purpose of this is to allow the accountability and responsibility to be pushed on foster families, should something awful, such as an allegation or investigation occur. From the report, it seems that DHS views it as acceptable to allow those on the frontline, the children, caseworkers, and foster parents, to take the fall for any issues that arise, even though the required support from the system is not available.
“Management does not plan adequately for costly initiatives and needs to better use data to make informed decisions and promote lasting program improvements.”
Another statement in the audit that hits close to home is the lack of support foster families receive, and the inappropriate placements that occur due to the lack of available foster homes. When we went through the Certification Process, we stated the backgrounds of children we thought we were best suited for and could provide the best support for. Since filling out that paperwork, we have not had a single child who meets those criteria. Believe us, as secular individuals, our reach was broad. However, children in these demographics have not been placed with us, but children which we have backgrounds or needs that we stated we do not have the skills or availability to be a good match for, have been placed with us, creating a situation that could lead to burn out.
The final insight brought up in the audit that we need to draw your attention to, is about the cost for caring for children in foster care, and the cost this systemic failure of the system is creating. For the first time in over a decade, the foster care reimbursement rate increased in 2018. In our previous post, “You Get Paid For This, Right?“, we tried to pull back the curtain on reimbursement rates and the to cost of being a foster parent. Since we wrote that post, we have talked multiple times to numerous caseworkers and Social Services Assistants (SSAs) about how they are having to spend multiple nights a week in hotel rooms with children in the system. These are children who they can not find homes for, or who have to be removed from a home, typically because they are not a good match for the foster family they were placed with. The audit states that a child spending one night in a hotel room with an SSA or caseworker is estimated to cost $1,350 per night… or about double the monthly reimbursement rate for a foster family. This is not an effective or efficient way of allocating funds, let alone providing a stable and supportive environment for children in the system, and it does not provide a sustainable work environment for employees of DHS on the front line, who are being asked to be away from their families, to routinely work overtime, by staying awake all night in a hotel with a youth in foster care and a co-worker. Typically these hotels are not the Hilton… they are’t even the Motel 6, although sometimes, due to lack of affordable hotel vacancy in Portland, DHS is having to shell out the big bucks for high end, upscale hotels like The Hilton.
The audit states that a child spending one night in a hotel room with an SSA or caseworker is estimated to cost $1,350 per night… or about double the monthly reimbursement rate for a foster family.
It seems that a reallocation of resources, to encourage more families to become foster parents, and to provide the necessary supports for these families, would be a much more cost effective and appropriate approach than placing children in hotels with caseworkers. DHS is currently being sued by current and former youths in foster care for this approach. The audit finds that the assumptions of DHS, regarding who foster parents are, is out dated, and not realistic. These assumptions put strain and hardships on current foster families, and create a prohibitive environment for many families who are interested in becoming foster parents. As we mentioned in our previous post, Childcare… Or How to Improve the System, DHS needs to look at different ways to remove barriers of entry for potential foster families. Childcare is a major barrier or hardship for many current, former, and potential foster families.
This audit and press release, along with all of the coverage, is a damning of the State of the System, but unfortunately, it is also validating. We are approaching 2-years on this journey, and the day-to-day issues we are dealing with make us contemplate giving up. Statistics show that the average length of time a family does foster care is about 3.5-years. As a current foster family, we look at this and think, “wow, that isn’t very long” but at the same time, as we contemplate giving up everyday, we also think “wow, that is a really long time”. This report, although it does’t immediately fix anything, at least provides a qualitative and quantitative validation of the feelings we have, and the thoughts we have to improve the system. Times have changed, unfortunately, the systems has not. As difficult as the audit and the reporting is to hear, we are glad it is out there. Once we heard a quote, and I wish I could find who to attribute it to. The statement went something like this:
“If there was a natural disaster, or destructive war in our community, and children were running around homeless in the street, I believe the majority of people would open their front doors to let these children in, and would care for them. There are currently children in our community that are experiencing theses struggles, there is just not a natural disaster or war to bring attention to them, and our society ignores. “
While we completely agree with the statement of the quote, the reality of the system presented in this audit demonstrates the difficulties endured everyday by children in foster care, foster parents, and caseworkers.
Thanks for reading, if you have questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comment section below, we would love to hear from you. To receive updates when a new post is published, click the “Follow” button, we appreciate your interest in our journey.